Reflections on bathing

Steamy showers and the stresses of late-stage capitalism

When I stood in the shower with hot steam sluicing down my back today, the frosted-glass window on my left took on a violet glow. For the first time since I moved in months ago, I noticed that the shower’s window had a latch with which to unlock it. I flipped the latch and slid the window open a crack to let in the violet glow. I opened the window more fully so that only the mosquito net separated my wet skin from the sky. 

Purple clouds lined with gold streaked over shadowy houses. Crows the size of fingernail clippings floated across the sky.

I don’t know what it is about showers that creates a separate world from the one beyond the steamy glass door and porcelain tiles. As a child, I sat in the shower for what felt like hours, living out whole universes in my head that only dissipated when the fog in the mirror did. This was back when we lived in a crappy little basement with plumbing that made it so when someone flushed the toilet while I was in the shower, I wound up being boiled alive in there.

When I got older, showers turned into the one place I found solace — when it came to anxiety, mental breakdowns over school, overwhelmed crying sessions, or just Straight Up Not Having a Good Time, showers were a one-stop therapist. Enveloped in neroli-scented steam, the outside world became a little less real.

I know I’m not the only one who treats showers as a form of escapism. In fact, the way we use our bathrooms is an indication of capitalist progress.

Once upon a time, bathing constituted a chore only the wealthy had the misfortune of performing. For well over a century, baths were methodical and quick — no one lingered in the soapy water or marinated in essential oils. This changed soon after the advent of plumbing in the late 1800s. Tubs became common and permanent fixtures in American homes. Bathwater became hot and bathers were encouraged to enjoy the experience of bathing by physicians and health advisors.

Alcove bathtubs, which tuck themselves into bathrooms in a way that saves space, were the standard in the 1900s. Back then, people paid more attention to their living rooms and kitchens, rooms that saw more traffic and that were more communal.

An interesting trend today, though, is that home owners and dwellers have begun to turn in the opposite direction. The money that people spend on their bathrooms has soared, with master baths receiving about five times more money than dining rooms.

If you follow any lifestyle influencers or own a Pinterest account, you’ll have at least subconsciously noted the trend of freestanding tubs — expensive, beautiful luxuries that sprawl in the bathroom space — overtaking the more pedestrian alcove tub. Late-stage capitalism has had all of us crying in the shower at least once, and it makes a lot of sense that we’re spending more time than ever in the escapist landscape of the bathroom, but do you need a freestanding tub to withdraw from the world? 

“One could argue that you don’t need a freestanding tub to make a getaway; any tub will suffice. I’ve closed myself in my five-by-four-foot New York City bathroom and plunged into my alcove tub plenty of times. But I can’t really submerge myself. If I want to straighten my legs, my torso must remain above water. If I want my torso to go under, my legs will have to jut out at a 45-degree angle, knees locked as my feet hit the wall. If you really want to soak, properly, with all your limbs underwater, you need a large tub, one of these tubs — it’s a completely different experience,” says Magdalena Puniewska of Curbed.

But beyond that? Just take a look at the NYC influencers snapping pictures of their polished marble tiles and golden showerheads, and you’ll understand that freestanding tubs aren’t just a luxury for you to enjoy solo. Freestanding tubs, like a beautiful car or modernist vase, are a symbol of wealth and cultural status. 

According to Puniewska, “The display aspect is key: A few of the designers I spoke with admitted that some clients will put in freestanding tubs even if they don’t take baths; the tub becomes just another part of the performance, another amenity that money can buy.”

Apparently, lonely people tend to bathe longer and with warmer temperatures. Across American cities, freestanding tubs and other bathroom luxuries continue to climb in popularity. “But whether we’re bathing in tiny rental-apartment tubs or precisely positioned claw-foot ones, we’re taking baths for the same reasons: Like the citizens of the Industrial Revolution, we’re longing for escape while participating in a widespread conversation about stress and self-care in a fragmented world.”